In the midst of the Business Forecast Conference put on the by Valley Industry and Commerce Association at the Hilton Universal City hotel on Oct. 15, a woman asked a question of a university administrator that went something like this (and I am paraphrasing liberally):
With so many people working at home, what assurance can you give me that my personal financial information (perhaps including a Social Security number) that I recently submitted to a university’s financial aid department is secure? Did a school official, working at home, open my application on a personal computer? Did the at-home worker print out my application? If so, is that printout locked away?
Her question raised a string of others. Can that computer be hacked by a neighbor? Is that computer shared with others in the house, such as a teenager?
Unfortunately, there were no good answers for the woman. And you could see the managers in the audience squirm.
Employees really like hybrid and remote work. According to a recent Gallup poll, 91 percent of those now working at least some of their hours remotely are hoping their arrangement to work at home continues after the pandemic.
But managers generally don’t like hybrid and remote work. They worry about whether their employees are collaborating and sharing tips and best practices. They are concerned that the company’s culture, nurtured over the years, is being torn asunder by at-home workers who have become de facto free agents. They wonder if California’s many labor laws are being observed by their work-at-home crews. (See the op-ed below.)
And they fret about security. For many mangers, the honest answer to the woman’s query might be: No, I can’t give you any assurance that your personal financial information is secure. And now that you mention it, I wonder if the sensitive company information I send to my accountants and lawyers is likewise being opened at home on unsecure personal computers. Maybe my stuff is being printed out and left lying on a desktop for their teenage son’s friends to see.
So, we have these two camps: Employees who love the work-at-home arrangement and want to see it made permanent and managers who worry about its deleterious effects but who are going along with it because employees may not return to the office unless some kind of remote or hybrid work routine is institutionalized.
But here’s another question: Will employees love the work-from-home arrangement nearly as much in, say, a year or two? Have they thought through the implications?
Here are a few potential shocks for you work-at-home proponents:
• Suddenly the whole world is your competition. If your workplace is going truly remote, that means your boss can hire a skilled genius in St. Louis, North Dakota or Bangalore, India. The fact that you live in the Valley area is no longer meaningful.
• Your boss may be tempted by much lower wages elsewhere. Since the cost of living is so much lower in many other places, your boss could pay $80,000 a year for work that he pays you $100,000 for. That may be of little consequence to you at first, but eventually, you may get a call from your boss, who says, “You know, I’ve gotten used to paying much less for the kind of work you so. Sorry to put it this way, but if you want to keep your job...”
• You may lose out on promotions because of “proximity bias.” That is, bosses promote those they know and like. According to Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, a 2015 study in a Chinese company said that productivity increased 13 percent for those who started on a work-from-home program, but promotions among them fell.
More companies seem to be set on creating work-from-home systems. Bosses are reluctant and skeptical. I wonder if workers will turn against it in a couple of years.
Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.